This is the final in a series of four vignettes designed as a supplement to the 2019 series of mission command articles (Part 1, 2, and 3) led by General Stephen Townsend. The vignettes follow a fictional character, John Miller, through his career as an Infantry officer. Each vignette is a stand-alone story reflecting the principles of mission command and how it is applied in terms of leadership.
If you did not read the introduction and the other vignettes linked above, we would encourage you to do so. Vignette number four follows.
Vignette 4: Commander’s Intent & Mission Orders
When communication is unreliable and the situation is evolving chaotically – establishing shared understanding and intent is critical. When MG John Miller realizes his original plan is about to fail, he must depend upon the trust he has established up and down the chain of command and develop new mission orders to prevent strategic loss.
Forward Tactical Command Post
12th Division Area
In retrospect, the attack began before the corps update brief. It began two days prior when borderline panic broke out in the 34th Division after it was targeted with a deep fake video of a massacre at one of their child development centers back home. This hoax drew the attention of the corps’ leadership, who tuned in for the day’s corps update brief with the expectation of finding out what really happened. Fifteen minutes into the briefing, video communications failed, followed by VOIP. The battlefield display systems and the artificial multi-domain command and control assistant (AMDC2A) started automatically rebooting. Then came the rumbles.
This situation was unexpected. 3rd Corps’ rotational REFORGER Exercise had turned real world just as their ADVON hit the ground. Enemy forces posturing heavily along the border, with political rhetoric to match, forced a U.S. response to deter and, if needed, defeat enemy aggression. Instead of drawing the typical training stocks, they were redirected to Monport City where the pre-positioned strategic contingency stocks (P2SCS) were located.
Subsequently, 3rd Corps established an area defense with the intent of denying enemy forces control of main supply route (MSR)-1. Holding MSR-1 was critical, as it was the primary maneuver corridor from the strategic ports of Monport City. Losing MSR-1 meant fighting through dense urban terrain, with elevation on either side. To retake it would likely cost an additional corps. Losing MSR-1 also put the sea port of debarkation into jeopardy, which would mean no reinforcements and Monport would be lost. It would take years before friendly forces could establish a new worthwhile foothold.
MG John Miller, Commanding General of 12th Maneuver Division was forward with his G-3, LTC Jason DeBord, when the enemy attack started. His 2nd Brigade owned the front line of the main corridor, with 1st and 3rd Brigades supporting to the north and south. MG Miller brought his brigade commanders together for a back brief.
“Where did those impacts come from?” MG Miller called out to his G-3, LTC Jason DeBord.
“Sir, the initial look is that they hit our decoy headquarters site. We still have a direct link back to Division.” LTC DeBord responded back, bouncing between his analogue set up, a radio, and a rebooting battlefield display system.
MG Miller turned to his commanders. “Looks like this fight is on. I cannot stress enough the importance of the established fire support lines. We must adhere to them. If we are in a significant friendly fire situation, we will lose that pass and put the corps at risk. Get back to your units.”
Forward Tactical Command Post
12th Division Area
The initial corps casualty and damage numbers were in. 34th Division Headquarters was destroyed. The 12th and 41st Division, to the south, had suffered minimal casualties and damage. Nonetheless, MG Miller’s forward brigades were under attack and the situation was developing.
MG Miller turned to LTC DeBord, “What’s your read?”
LTC DeBord took a step back from the battlefield display. “All indications point to 34th being routed and we cannot assume it can hold its position. By tomorrow morning, our 1st Brigade could be facing the weight of three enemy corps.”
“What is 3rd Corps’ position on this?”
“Corps appears to be in paralysis. They have yet to respond with counter-battery. I think they are having a hard time trusting their data as they are cautioning everyone against using AMDC2A.”
“No guidance for us?”
“Only guidance received was to ‘hold what we’ve got with everything you have.” Giving air quotes.
“What about 4th Army?”
“4th Army is better off. They were the ones who reported 34th Division HQ as destroyed. They also tasked 5th Air Mobility Division to relocate and assume hasty control of 34th Division’s rear area to deny enemy movement into Monport.”
“Things are dynamic and getting complex. What options do we have to communicate?”
“Based on what the chief of staff (CoS) gave me, we can work short blasts of data packages and text. Anything measured beyond seconds cannot be guaranteed.”
“This is higher, adjacent, and even to the brigades?”
Frustrated MG Miller quipped, “Well, even if I wanted to get to corps headquarters they put themselves so far out of the way we’d all be surrendering by the time we got there.”
Taking a breath, MG Miller started to put the pieces together over their analogue set up, “I see four critical actions. First, reinforce our northern boundary to prepare for an enemy attack tomorrow morning and adjust priority of fires accordingly. Second, adjust unit areas of operations (AO) – that means passage of lines and coordination within the division. I want the deputy commanding general (DCG) operations (DCG-O) to work those personally and position himself accordingly. Third, establish reconstitution operations for the 34th Division elements egressing into our AO. Let’s build up whatever combat power we can muster and put them wherever we can fill a hole. The DCG support (DCG-S) can work that action with the division sustainment brigade (DSB). Fourth and final, we need to coordinate adjacent and higher. I need the CoS to work to fuel the fight. This coordination is going to have to work through us at the tactical command post (TAC). We need all of this completed before 0400 tomorrow.”
LTC DeBord was writing furiously. “Sir, here’s your confirmation brief… DCG-O develops and executes passage of lines and coordination throughout division to reinforce the northern boundary. DCG-S, with DSB, conducts reconstitution operations for remnants of 34th Division and prepares them to maneuver whatever combat power can be mustered. CoS continues to manage division support for the current fight. Last, the TAC will manage coordination with higher and adjacent units.”
While the order made sense to MG Miller he found himself feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the details and subsequent movements. He was giving leaders he trusted the authorities and direction required to ensure they not only hold MSR-1, but also do their part in preventing a significant strategic loss. Still, something was missing.
“Graphic control measures.” MG Miller almost shouted to himself.
LTC DeBord looked up with surprise, “Sir?”
“Whatever the DCG-O, DCG-S, CoS, and you come up with – I need it on a COA sketch that gives clear commander’s intent along with task and purpose for each brigade. It has to be something the 41st, and more importantly, corps will readily understand. We need to give this to corps at least one hour before we start executing. Backwards plan. Get on it.”
“On it, Sir.”
Questions for Discussion:
- What were the unique challenges facing MG Miller and his division?
- How did MG Miller apply mission orders with varying levels of control based on the situation and information available at the time?
- Was MG Miller’s mission orders in line with 4th Army and 3rd Corps commanders’ intent?
- Did MG Miller allow enough time to inform 3rd Corps on his final plan? Why would he only allow for an hour prior to execution?
- Is this a case of taking on an ‘I can do it all’ approach? Should MG Miller have pushed for direction and guidance from corps? Why or why not?
The author would like to thank COL Dan Rayca, COL Tim Hummel, COL Jason Slider, LTC Brandon Garner, LTC Tim Lawrence, and Robert Merkle for their collaboration and bringing realism to these stories.
LTC Kelly McCoy is a U.S. Army strategist. He has led various planning teams in army, joint, and interagency contexts. He has multiple deployments in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He currently serves as the Strategy Chair for the National Security Affairs Department at Naval Postgraduate School.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.